Tuniver.se - Your music. Discovered.
Get TuneUp Companion!

Artist: Tom Waits

Tom Waits


Tom Waits (born Thomas Alan Waits, in Pomona, California, on December 7, 1949) is a prolific American singer, songwriter, composer, and actor. He started his career in the early 1970s as a singer in spit 'n' sawdust bars. Initially, he was deeply influenced by the beat generation, novelists like Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, and poets like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski. Waits is often compared to Charles Bukowski, being similar both in content and lifestyle Waits was unable to make a living from his music in the 70s because his classical bar music, based in pre-rock, and Americana, blues, and Vaudeville styles were not popular. Waits's voice back then was soft, warm and clear. Waits subsequently developed a devoted cult following and has influenced subsequent songwriters, despite having little radio or music video support. In fact, his songs are perhaps best known to the general public in the form of cover versions of more visible artists, such as the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart. Although Waits’s albums have met with mixed commercial success in his native United States, they have occasionally achieved gold album sales status in other countries. Lyrically, Waits's songs are known for atmospheric portrayals of seedy characters and places; he sings about the losers on the streets: alcoholics, junkies, prostitutes and social outcasts, although he also includes more conventional and touching ballads in his repertoire. While opening for Frank Zappa, the audience catcalled and refused to listen to him; he was an unsuitable match with Zappa's avantgarde style. Countless cigarettes, gallons of alcohol and many all night parties eventually left their trace in his face and voice. His more recent gravelly voice can be first heard on Small Change. This distinctive voice turned out to be his trademark. It is described by the Music Hound Rock Album Guide as sounding "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months and then taken outside and run over with a car". Small Change with its sentimental ballads, its bar-jazz attitude and Film Noir-oriented stories turned out to be his biggest commercial success in the 1970s. Waits subsequently developed a more unique style. His songs have grown more abrasive since th
More at Last.fm

Concert Dates

No content available.


No content available.


The Backpages Interview: Tom Waits Rock's Backpages, Apr 2002

View Original

Thomas Alan Waits is about to release two albums simultaneously – Alice and Blood Money. In this previously unpublished interview from the spring of 1985, shortly after a move to New York City, he talks about the radical change of direction represented by 1983's Swordfishtrombones – and about the follow-up that was in the pipeline, 1985's Rain Dogs

View Original

BH: How different is your life in NYC?

TW: It's a hard city, you know? You have to be on your toes. When I arrived, I actually had a cab driver say to me, 'If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, jus' like Frank said...' The thing is, you could go out on the street in New York and drop your trousers and start singing 'Fly Me To The Moon' and no one would notice. I could shave my head, put on a dress and pee in a beer glass, and I'd get no complaints. You invent your own apartment that you travel around with in New York – you have to be a little off-centre because it's overwhelming, the things you see... unless you stare at your shoes, which a lot of people choose to do in order to make it here. I’m absorbing a lot; it all goes in someplace, though it's hard to tell what effect it's had on you until you move on.

Has New York affected the sounds in your head?

I think so. Construction sounds, for example. I started taping a lot of stuff, but how that'll integrate itself into what I'm doing I'm not certain. I started taping the sounds of machinery a lot and I play it back at night, 'cause you miss it when it gets quiet.

Is your new material as diverse and radical as Swordfishtrombones?

Uh, it's more rhythmic, but maybe even more oddball... well, oddball for me. One man's ceiling is another man's floor. The thing is, you have ideas, and the hardest thing is bringing them up and bringing them out and making them as clear on the outside as they were to you on the inside. It's like digging a hole, and a lot of things don't make the trip. There are things I imagine, and that thrill me and that I want to hear, but sometimes you only get halfway there. The way I'm constructing songs now is different from the way I used to. It's more like collage, maybe. I'll take this and put that there and I'll nail that to the side and then we'll paint it yellow and... it's more like construction. What I usually do is write two songs and put 'em in a room together and they have children.

What's your writing routine?

I don't write year round, I write for a season and then I'm done. I'd like to be able to write through it all, but it gets hard, so you say, 'I'm gonna set this time aside'. For me, a lot of it's like going back to a place where you go a lot, but the season changed and the vines grew over the entrance... and you get back there and you say, 'Well, I'm standing right where I was, how come I can't get back in?' And then you realise that things grew over, so you get through that and then you see the little path and then you're on your way.

What do you do the rest of the time?

Well, I entertain guests. I'm a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. I do bus tours round New York. I repair lamps. I play golf –

Like Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper –

– they do? Well, I don't know, if golf was part of my life I don't think I'd tell anybody about it. I think I'd put on sunglasses and a raincoat and sneak off and do it at night. I don't know if I'd be able to be open and candid about it. But I guess it's all about how well-adjusted you are. I used to be more hung up about who I was, y'know: this is me and that's not me, and now I'm more secure. Well, Bing Crosby died on the course, and when I read that I said, 'This is not for me'.

Do you think you've escaped the prestige cultishness you had on Asylum?

Well, see, you get to the point where the things you hear and see and react to... you can kind of nail 'em all together and call it your own. I think for a while I had a certain romance with Tin Pan Alley and that type of thing, and it was actually rather rigid for me, y'know, because I wrote primarily at the piano, and you write a certain kind of song at the piano. The piano brings you indoors immediately, so those types of songs were all a different shade of colour. Now I'm trying to go outside more, maybe to write more from my imagination, rather than being a chronicler.

Do you think most people cling to this idea of Tom Waits as the chronicler of booze-sodden lowlife?

They don't want you to sober up.

Even though you've kept to your word that you'd write no more booze songs.

You can't really be too concerned with what people think of you. You're on your own adventure of growth and discovery. Like Charles Bukowski said, people think I'm down on 5th and Main at the Blarney Stone, throwing back shooters and smoking a cigar, but I'm on the top floor of the health club with a towel in my lap, watching Johnny Carson. So, I mean, it's not always good to be where people think you are, especially if you subscribe to it as well, which is easily done. Coz then you don't have to figure out who you are, you just ask somebody else.

When you were living at the Tropicana in LA, was it ever a pose?

Oh gosh, you know... when I moved into that place it was, like, nine dollars a night. But it became a... a stage, because I became associated with it, and people came looking for me and calling me in the middle of the night. I think I really wanted to kind of get lost in it all... so I did. When they painted the pool black, that's when I said this has gone too far. It was a pretty heavy place at times. I had a good seat at the bar, and I could see everyone in the room, but I think there are other things to write about.

You said that what you tried to be was a private eye, a kind of Marlowe of the ivories. Is that a description that still fits?

My eyes are a lot more private than they used to be, but I don’t know. It's a little over-romantic. As I said before, I prefer to think of it in terms of construction, or junk sculpture. There's something very American about taking a piece of wire and some broken glass and an old T-shirt and some feathers. The garbage in New York is unbelievable, it's just thrilling. As a matter of fact, I furnished an entire apartment with things I found on the street. I wanted to make a record called Wreck Collections.

New York, of course, is full of bag ladies and bag men...

This lady came up to me on the street and said, 'Excuse me, sir, is this the place where the clocks are?' And I said, 'Uh, yeah, this is the place where the clocks are'. She asked me who I was, and I said, 'I'm Father Time'. And she said, 'Dad!' and opened her arms.

New York is all about dismantling and reconstructing.

You get a Romanian cab driver who's playing Romanian music full blast in his cab and he has a picture of Malcolm X on the dashboard and he's wearing a Budweiser cap and he has two different shoes, a tennis shoe and an Oxford, and you say, Jesus! It's insane. Musically, too, the density is interesting. I enjoy things that I've misinterpreted. Actually, New York is really like a ship, and you can imagine that this bar is the galley of the ship you're on. Because there's no real indication that there's actual earth beneath this city. Anything outside Manhattan becomes the ocean. People move to Brooklyn and they feel marooned. It's only five minutes away, but they got off the ship, you know?

Are your American fans still "truck drivers, waitresses and divorcees," as you once surmised? Or do they include Romanian cab drivers?

It is diverse. I have a lot of older people coming up and telling me they heard one of my records in their son's collection and they just flipped. Lush songs like 'Ruby's Arms'. Songs you attach memories to, songs that massage you back into the past.

Would you say there's a strong streak of sentimentality running through your work? I'm thinking of something as recent as the One From The Heart soundtrack, obviously.

Your musical diet determines a lot of what comes out of you, and I was listening to a lot of Ellington when I was writing songs like 'I Beg Your Pardon'. In fact, there's a quote from 'Sophisticated Lady' in that song. I've always had a real fascination with Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer and all those people.

In that connection, I loved Rickie Lee Jones' version of 'Rainbow Sleeves'.

Yeah, that was written for Bette Midler. She did it on the road, and then on a TV show once. Bette's one of my oldest friends. She's a real touchstone for me.

Why did it take so long for the influences of Harry Partch and Captain Beefheart to surface properly in your work?

Well, it goes in there and stays there a while and pretty soon it ends up... it's like soup, you know, you don't know what's going to end up important. And I listened to a lot of Kurt Weill too. It's usually your own perception of the things you listen to that influences you.

Have you been offered a movie role yet that isn't typecast?

You know, it's hard. Film people look at you and get a sense of you, and they cast you according to how they feel about you. You can't expect someone to think of you as a banker if you come on like a longshoreman. It's a real insecure way to live, you know... hoping someone thinks of you.

Who are the really distinctive American actors for you today? You must love Harry Dean Stanton.

Yeah, I love Harry Dean. He's a friend of mine and a very spiritual man. Michael Jay Pollard I like, though he hasn't done a whole lot lately.

How do you see the current state of music?

Music is constantly reinventing itself. Ideally, it's always moving, but if it isn't it soon gets rolling again, and then off it goes here and it's all new clover and then it's like, 'No, the thing we had before, let's bring that back in...' I don't know, when a scene starts to develop an anatomy and elect a president, then you have problems sometimes. England is constantly rediscovering, re-establishing, reinventing everything. But you trace just about everything that's called new back to something that's old.

Is the America you're painting becoming more demented all the time? With Swordfishtrombones you went way beyond the American Beat dream and incorporated more surreal, European elements into the music.

There are times when you totally disregard things in your memory and your experience, and you just have to wait till they can be used... and you hope somebody's still listening by the time you get there. I'm in a very exciting period for myself, as a writer, and a lot of the things that break through may go unnoticed, and that's OK too... as long as you know.

Was there ever any danger of your becoming a kind of Billy Joel Piano Man singer-songwriter?

Maybe if you feel like that coming on, you kinda sabotage yourself. I don't know, Asylum were really very good to me. I was on the road most of the time. You felt like a sailor, you know? Something compels you to be popular, but at the same time you hate the trappings of it. I like to be considered, but you also don't want to end up like a shoehorn or a desk lamp. Seems like the politics of music do to a lot of musicians the same thing as politics do to a guy when he finally gets into office – he sells all his ideas to get there. It's very hard to make it through on the road with all the things you set out with... it's like the wagon going up the hill, and you throw out the pump organ and the wedding dress and the bowling ball. By the time you get to the top, the wagon's lighter but you sold everything else off on the way up. A lot of things get lost that way.

Have marriage and family made work easier or harder?

Easier in some ways, harder in others. I love the way things are, I love having a family. Family's real important, y'know. If you don't have one, you invent one. Even Hell's Angels have a sense of family.

Tom Waits: Ronnie Scott's, London NME, Jun 1976

View Original

HE TAKES the stage with what he describes as his don't care-a-shit shuffle. Very apt

View Original

He tosses a coin lackadaisically in the air and – amazingly – catches it. His slothfulness is obviously deceptive.

His suit, Not Zoot as could be expected, is straight from the great L.A. Misfits sale of '48, It vies, agewise, with a cap that's more worn than a Ronnie Scott joke, a tie that's come out in mourning and a shirt that's just plain come out.

Flip, flip, the coin spins, the bass-player begins to "walk" and we're into opening rap time, the spiel before the meal, an hors d'oeuvre served straight from the Waits Thesaurus.

"I've been riding on the crest of a slump lately," he relates. True too – the night before he'd been thrown outta Ronnie's by the resident bouncer. Such is stardom.

"I've played at a place where the average age was deceased," I hear that line, miss a lot more and pick up on "They said ‘Waits you so ugly, you enough to make a freight train take a dirt road’." Though the delivery is lethargic, the funnies come quickly enough. But the sawmill of a voice makes it hard to grab at everything he's putting out.

His band – Frank Vicari, tenor sax, Fitz Jenkins, bass, and Chip White, drums, are 52nd Street cool and complement the hip talkovers to perfection. It comes to mind that maybe Clark Terry's stumblebum but swinging Mumbles character has much in common with the Waits approach.

Songtime – and Waits opts to become L.A.'s least suave keyboardman. Though he doesn't rate himself as much of a musician, he plays some useful stuff and items like ‘Better Off Without A Wife’, from the Nighthawks album, sound really okay even though Mike Melvoin's not around.

There is heckling. "Your opinions are like assholes, buddy," comes the voice from beneath the cap. "Everybody's got one."

The fans at the back yell "Shut up!" to the front-line main-mouths.

Waits flicks a lighted cigarette into the central area of contention and everybody holds their breath waiting for a fight to start. Nothing happens, so Waits moves on to deliver a finger-poppin' work-out on ‘Diamonds On My Windshield' the tempo being about twice that employed on the Heart Of Saturday Night version.

I hear a line about Chesty Morgan and, somewhere along the way, a reference to Julie London albums. But then I give up and don't try to dig the lyrics anymore. I sit back and listen as Vicari takes off on a neat, fluid solo and speculate what a pity it is that the band's not allowed a little more room to wail. Soon after comes a final rap and riff, then it's time to go.

"Plant you now and dig you later," says Waits using the most hackneyed adieu to ever emanate from Swingsville, then shuffles off to read the racing form that sticks from his back pocket. The fans and the hecklers unite in their applause, the low-life loser's won again.

And even though I didn't get to hear half of what was put down, I remain suitably impressed.

First of all Al Jarreau, now Tom Waits. Sure as hell, it's been a hot time at Ronnie's lately.


No content available.

No content available.

No content available.

Top Albums

Rain Dogs cover art

Rain Dogs

Buy Amazon.com     Buy iTunes    

Closing Time cover art

Closing Time

Buy Amazon.com     Buy iTunes    

Mule Variations cover art

Mule Variations

Buy Amazon.com     Buy iTunes    

Bone Machine cover art

Bone Machine

Buy Amazon.com     Buy iTunes    

Swordfishtrombones cover art


Buy Amazon.com     Buy iTunes    


Top Songs

Jockey Full of Bourbon cover art

Jockey Full of Bourbon

Buy Amazon.com     Buy iTunes    

Clap Hands cover art

Clap Hands

Buy Amazon.com     Buy iTunes    

Downtown Train cover art

Downtown Train

Buy Amazon.com     Buy iTunes    

Singapore cover art


Buy Amazon.com     Buy iTunes    

Time cover art


Buy Amazon.com     Buy iTunes    

Rain Dogs cover art

Rain Dogs

Buy Amazon.com     Buy iTunes    


No content available.

Recommended Albums